‘Burri was a rough man. At times he was rude,’ the novelist Rosetta Loy once said of her friend, the artist Alberto Burri. ‘But I found him very enjoyable. Rude, but very nice.’
In fact, Loy and her husband, photographer Giuseppe Loy, enjoyed an enduring friendship with the standard-bearer for Arte Povera, who lived a stone’s throw from the couple in a converted farmhouse on Via di Quarto Peperino in Rome. Burri was a reserved and intensely private man who generally avoided other artists. Yet he became close to Giuseppe, inviting him to be his companion at the Venice Biennale in 1966, and posing freely for the Sardinian’s ever-present Leica.
In the 20th/21st Century Milan Online Sale, which runs until 31 May 2023, Christie’s is offering Burri’s Combustione (1965), one of four works in the sale from the collection of Giuseppe and Rosetta Loy. The culmination of a decade of the artist’s experimentations with the violent energy that fire could unleash upon his canvases, the work was gifted to Rosetta in January 1965, with an inscription on the back that reads: ‘a very small combustion for the editor Rosetta’. It is about the size of a postcard that has been cut in half.
In was also in 1965 that Giuseppe Loy — by then in his late thirties, and some 13 years younger than Burri — enjoyed the first exhibition of his photographs, at the Einaudi bookshop on Rome’s Via Veneto. It must have been quite the occasion for him, because photography was a private passion, pursued outside of his career as an executive with his father-in-law’s construction business.
‘Giuseppe should have been a professional,’ Rosetta once said. ‘This was his nature. He always took pictures when he could, every Saturday and Sunday... He didn’t have enough faith in his talent.’
Yet, according to the photography scholar Antonio Arcari, it was perhaps this inability to commit to his talent that elevated his work. In his review of Loy’s exhibition for Foto Magazin, he declared that the non-professional nature of Loy’s photography gave it a distinguishing freshness, whether his subjects were residents of Rome’s crumbling urban sprawl or sunbathing holidaymakers at the beach.
It is, however, Loy’s candid and disarming shots of his artist friends — in particular Burri, Lucio Fontana (winner of the Grand Prize for Painting at that 1966 Biennale) and Afro Basaldella — for which he is best remembered.
Of this trio, Loy was closest by far to Burri, with whom he enjoyed a ‘very strong friendship’, according to Rosetta, in spite of their political differences (while Burri ‘didn’t like to talk about politics’, her husband, she said, was ‘a communist’).
Loy took countless photos of Burri at home, sometimes appearing relaxed, drinking coffee, at other times scowling into the distance.
He also took pictures of Burri’s studio: pots of liquid ready to boil on a Smeg cooker, stacks of cut card next to woodworking tools and shelves piled with old magazines, brush pots and bottles of liquor. One image even shows Burri pointing to a burnt hole on a huge canvas, which is hung next to a rack filled with shotguns.
In fact, Burri and Loy both enjoyed using guns, spending afternoons together at the clay-pigeon shooting range on Via Tiberina. An enigmatic image from one such expedition shows Burri dressed in a corduroy jacket and standing in front of a row of parked cars, squinting down the barrel of his shotgun directly into Loy’s lens.
A few months after he made Combustione, Burri described his pyrotechnic process in an interview. ‘There’s nothing random about it,’ he explained. ‘What I’m doing here is the most controlled and controllable of paintings.’
Surviving film footage from the era shows how Burri, deep in concentration, was able to use a wet brush and his breath to manoeuvre flames like oil paint, turning their destructive power into a force of creation, like an alchemist.
‘Combustione is not only an important work from Burri’s oeuvre that charts his fascination with fire,’ says Elena Zaccarelli, head of the 20th/21st Century: Milan Online Sale, ‘it is also a touching memento that offers a rare glimpse into the private life of an artist renowned for being solitary.’
Burri’s friendship with Loy came to a close with the latter’s premature death from a heart attack — still only in his early fifties — in 1981. He left an archive of more than 1,800 rolls of film, 70,000 photographs and piles of correspondence including manuscripts and poems, which is now overseen by his son, Angelo, as the Fondazione Loy.
Burri continued to make art until his death in 1995 at the age of 79. More than 20 years later, in 2019, an exhibition of photographs at the Fondazione Burri, in the artist’s home town of Città di Castello, celebrated his life between 1954 and 1993. It included many of Giuseppe Loy’s portraits of him.
Alongside Combustione, works by Franco Angeli, Alighiero Boetti and Pablo Picasso from the Collection of Giuseppe and Rosetta Loy, Rome, will be offered in the 20th/21st Century Milan Online Sale until 31 May 2023